The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

By Wooding, Lucy | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, March 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society


Wooding, Lucy, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. By Brad S. Gregory. Harvard University Press, 592pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780674045637. Published 26 January 2012.

This is a very unexpected book. Brad Gregory's first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, was much admired: a detailed, scholarly work that stayed fairly firmly in the 16th century. The Unintended Reformation, by contrast, ranges over six centuries and tackles almost everything that is wrong with our world today, from moral relativism to climate change and political strife. It does engender a certain amount of satisfaction, not to say mild pride, to find a Reformation historian solving the problems of the modern world, but it is a bit of a shock.

An important part of Gregory's thesis is that if academics thought the way they really ought to, then this kind of book would not come as such a surprise. He attacks our inability to explain the modern world historically any further back than the 18th century at most. In his view, many fundamental features of European and North American culture and society today can be traced back to the upheavals of the 16th century, and our failure to understand this lineage has led to a failure to understand ourselves.

Gregory is not arguing for direct causation: his model is instead one of a complex genealogy as he seeks to trace the family tree from which modern attitudes have descended. He identifies six siblings as the modern progeny of the Reformation: the hostile relationship between science and religion; Western society's hyperpluralism; the privatisation of religion; the moral divisions within modern states; the symbiosis of capitalism and consumerism; and the secularisation of universities.

Some parts are more convincing than others. The relationship between science and religion undoubtedly suffered from the bitter antagonisms of the 16th century that sidelined the debate about God and nature and put everyone on the defensive (thus the unfortunate episode with Galileo). Whether we should also blame Duns Scotus for causing the "domestication of God's transcendence" and turning him from a thing apart into a thing that could be empirically disproved is less evident. …

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